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Alex Dezen’s Gracefully Narrated Biography

by Cory Huffman
photos by Mike Dunn
of Rust and Rebel

On February 12, 2016, Alex Dezen (founder, frontman and chief songsmith for the Brooklyn-bred four-piece The Damnwells) readily jumped into his next musical chapter by issuing his first full-length solo set, a properly titular, genuinely personal, 10-track self-portrait of a man musing about life and all its influential novelties.

The first tune that Dezen craftily penned for his new record was the McCartney/Beatlesque “Blackbird”-inspired “Elephant”.

“Elephant’ was the first song I wrote for the record. The idea came to me during New Year’s with my girlfriend in Ohio. I saw an elephant on Facebook playing around in the ocean, as the opening lyrics will attest, and let the stream of consciousness go from there. Each verse starts with a seemingly innocuous event (looking at Facebook, taking a plane from Cleveland to LA, playing a show in the basement of an old church) and drives that narrative to some kind of personal truth or realization. It was the first experiment that informed the rest of the writing for this record.”

Dezen’s approach to lyricism on this record slightly differs from that of a Damnwells album. Still deepened with heart-on-sleeve emotion and a kind of sincerity that is becoming a missing art in rock music, Dezen gives listeners a truth, in a literal sense, to think about. His truth.

“I didn’t write like 30 songs and just kind of pick the 10 best. These are 10 songs that I had to write. The good thing about writing these songs is that when I have to talk about them I can just say, literally all you have to do is read the lyrics. Because it’s not like it’s coached in some kind of flowery metaphor.”

No. It certainly isn’t. The lyrics, both candid and pithily poetic, focus on a range of relatable topics – family, friends, politics and pop culture. Take the albums opener, “Ode to Ex-Girlfriends” for example, with its simple yet fantastic measure, where Dezen manages to simultaneously pay homage to former lovers and their moms.

There is something about the brilliance of a song in its way of allowing you to take someone else’s story and apply it to your own life. When an artist can connect with their listeners with words, that’s saying something.

“The title ‘Ode to Ex-Girlfriends’ had been in my notes for a few weeks. I recently had got divorced, and among the many things divorce makes you ponder, ex-lovers is chief among them. Each of the exs in the song have remained like signposts to a specific time in my life, the person I once was. They are tokens of loss – almost always a loss of innocence – and witnesses to my inner life. They know everything, things I don’t even know about myself. It would probably be incredibly helpful if you could gather up all the ex-lovers you’ve ever had and let them discuss their experiences. Maybe they would all say I’m a narcissist, since an actual narcissist can never self-diagnose! The song is a document, a proof of my life mapped out across the lives of the women I have loved.”

Listening to “Ode to Ex-Girlfriends” for the hundredth time invoked within me a different memory on each spin. Rhetorically speaking, past relationships are a funny, but necessary measuring stick for one’s self. I’m not the same person I was 5 minutes ago let alone 5 years ago. Still however, now at 32, I can sometimes see those breakups of my youthful past playout in the exact fashion that they happened. There’s no tragedy harbored. Only a lesson that was learned. And, every now and again, a conditioned response reminds me to remember those girls during certain songs or when a familiar smell triggers that slice of nostalgic past. Even those past loves that pushed me onto the sword’s blade should be thanked for unknowingly teaching my younger self something invaluable – something I’d come to appreciate as I grew older.

And that’s this…I’m not the same person. I’m better. And so are they.

So Anna and Chloe…thank you.

And Rachael and Jill…you’re welcome.

There is something about the brilliance of a song in its way of allowing you to take someone else’s story and apply it to your own life. When an artist can connect with their listeners with words, that’s saying something.

The brutally straightforward lyrical focus continues in songs such as “If You Can Say I Love You On A Greeting Card How Can It Be True” (a tale of domestic drama), “Into the Hands of Hazelton” (a sonic equivalent of a buddy road picture), “Leonardo” (a tip of the cap to his girlfriend’s fantasy celebrity freebie, Leonardo DiCaprio) and the intensely personal “I Don’t Want To Be Alone When I Die.”

“These (songs) are all me. This is me saying I needed to say a couple things, and put a couple things to music that did not require the sort of witticism of a clever line that I could only get from someone else, or a better melody here. It didn’t require those things. It just required me.”

And that’s what we get. Thirty-six minutes and some change worth of Dezen’s melodic version of an autobiography gracefully narrated over the rhythmic thump and strum of sonic bliss.

“The lyrics come first. In the way in which I approached this record, I’m not writing pretty lyrics, I’m just writing what I think is the truth.”

The truth is exactly what Dezen tackles on one of the album’s most powerful tunes, “A Little Less Like Hell.” The song is teeming with references to 9/11, Osama bin Laden and hateful and caustic YouTube comments aimed at President Obama, among other recent newsworthy events, all of which are fodder for the pundits, and includes the conversation sparking line: “But what I’ll never understand is why / Regardless of how hard we try / We need somebody on the cross / Just to make up for the things we lost.

“These (songs) are all me. This is me saying I needed to say a couple things, and put a couple things to music that did not require the sort of witticism of a clever line that I could only get from someone else, or a better melody here. It didn’t require those things. It just required me.”

As Dezen explains, “This is one of only a few songs on the record that started with a riff or part. I played it over and over again in my studio, singing different melodies over it, until I landed on the opening line ‘I saw The Interview today’ which goes into talking about how disturbed I felt seeing all these people dancing in the street when the news came that we had killed Osama bin Laden. The kind of nationalistic rapture you saw on TV, with college kids chanting ‘USA! USA!’ deeply disturbed me, and I was both confused and afraid to say why. This song is the exploration and expression of that feeling.”

But hold on a second. Where “A Little Less Like Hell” is a cultural eye-opener, Dezen flips the script with a completely different type of truth in the nearly word-for-word true story he tells of having to sell a now ex-axe in the aptly titled “This Is The Last Song (I’ll Ever Write On This Guitar).”

“I had this Martin D-35 guitar forever. It was a guitar that I often used and would often write on. But I fell on hard times and I needed the cash. So I took to the internet and posted this guitar…and this guy who I mention in the song chimed in and said, ‘hey I wanna buy it.’ So I sold it to him. And at the time I was writing for this record, and it was all very autobiographical, and I thought, I can’t sell this guitar during the writing of this record and not write about the selling of this guitar. So I literally sat down with that guitar and I wrote the last song that I would ever write on that guitar.”

In a refreshing splash of sentimentality and stripped down honesty, Alex Dezen’s solo record feels delicately personal. The songs are open. They’re honest. They reverberate with humanity and we understand what that’s like, because we can feel it. It’s almost as if he took his own private journal, dipped it in polyvinyl chloride, and dropped the needle.

“I’m very sentimental. Sentimentality is my bread and butter. I’m very nostalgic. I think to be a songwriter – at least to be a songwriter of confessional songs – you have to be pretty sentimental. But being that you’re a sentimental person, it does wind up confusing the motion of the narrative of your life. We should be going forward.”

And forward we go.

But, as Dezen proves on his solo record, there is no going forward until we can come to terms with the things that got us to this particular tick of the second hand in the first place.

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About Cory Huffman

Cory Huffman teaches English and social studies in Southern Indiana. Besides his penchant for good bands and music, he is also a writer for Indiana on Tap and an avid Cincinnati Bearcats fan.

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